When Fred Hiatt, the editor of The Washington Post editorial page, offered me the chance to write a weekly column, the first person I turned to for advice was Dave Broder.
I headed to Dave’s glassed-in cubicle in the midst of the newsroom. Back in the days when I used to lead tours of The Post for my kids’ preschool classes, this site was always the biggest hit with the moms — not because Broder was such a journalistic mega-star, which he was, but because the office was so astonishingly, dangerously piled with books and papers it cried out for “clean-up time.”
As always, sitting amid the chaos, Dave had a minute. As always, Dave demurred at the thought that he had any wisdom to offer. As always, he did. “I can’t tell you how to write a column, but I can tell you what works for me,” he said. First, he said, you can only have one big thought per 750-word column. Second, he said, he couldn’t simply sit in his office and conjure up Big Thoughts. He had to go out and report.
That was classic Broder, indeed a reporter at heart.
Before I moved back to the solitude of the editorial page staff, I spent years ensconced at a desk right outside Broder’s office. When he was there instead of out on a reporting trip, he was a whirlwind of reporting activity. “This is Dave Broder,” he would say — and, after a pause, you would hear, “Oh, yes, senator,” “Thanks for getting back to me, governor.” The clutter of Broder’s office was matched by the orderliness of his mind. He returned all the phone calls, cranked out the columns, knocked on the doors — all with an energy that would have been astonishing in a 20-year-old.
To be out on the campaign trail with Dave was to receive a lesson in modesty. He was a celebrity; people would line up to shake his hand and take his picture. And his response was always gracious and self-effacing: Where are you from? Tell me something about yourself.
To sit at the table in the Post cafeteria with Dave was to receive a different lesson in modesty. What do you think is going to happen about X, someone would ask. In an era of instant pontificators on every subject imaginable, Broder was willing to say, “I have no clue.” When Dave did allow as to how he had a clue, you quickly learned that it paid to listen.
In the age of the Internet, Broder became a favorite target for left-wing bloggers who disdained his willingness to see both sides’ point of view, his aversion to invective and his instinct for moderation. “High Broderism” was their term of derision. Over the years, a few snarky bloggers applied it to me, intending insult. It could not have been a higher, if undeserved, compliment.